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To Market Sustainability, Focus on What Consumers Love, Not What They Hate

Image credit: Tony's Chocoloney

Early marketing for products promising sustainability was all about what they “weren’t.” Tofurky wasn’t meat. Soy milk wasn’t dairy. Solar wasn’t coal.

Positioning against the negative helped companies attract consumers who were revolting against the polluting impacts of standard manufacturing practices and products. But doing so ignored what potential customers still wanted, whether a product was sustainable or not: delicious taste, high performance, reliable quality and comfort, and overall satisfaction.

Consider the ominous ads for the first Prius, which started running in 2001. The only virtue they extolled was fuel efficiency, and portrayed oil drills as monsters.

Their vacuous sales pitch? “Transportation is finally evolving.” There was no mention of vehicle performance, comfort or reliability — three criteria that rank high on consumers’ lists of what’s important to them when purchasing a car.

Companies marketing sustainable consumer products today have left that uninspired playbook behind. The most successful among them are starting with what people want, not what they don’t. In doing so, they’ve illuminated seven strategies that can help any sustainable brand market successfully:

Success Strategy 1: Promote what people love, not what they hate

Image credit: Beyond Meat

Many eco-conscious consumers have given up meat grudgingly. They understand the devastating environmental consequences of converting rainforests into cattle ranches, and bemoan the damage methane generated by animal agriculture does to the climate. But that doesn’t mean they don’t miss the savory taste of a good burger — which is why Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, created a product that looks and tastes almost exactly like “real” meat, but is made from pea protein and beet juice instead of animal muscle. “We don’t talk about people not eating meat,” Brown says. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to build a brand by telling people not to eat what they love.” Instead, the entrepreneur encourages people to eat more of their favorite food — just a healthier, more humane, more sustainable version. It also helps that he has cleverly redefined “meat” to include his vegetable-based option. Is the public buying it? If sales in more than 11,000 Safeway, Kroger, King Soopers, Fred Meyer and Whole Foods are any indication, they are.

Success Strategy 2: Play up performance

Image credit: Tesla

Thanks in part to those early Prius ads, consumers shopping for fuel-efficient cars were convinced they had to sacrifice safety, speed and maybe even one of the most prized aspects found in any vehicle — cup holders — if they bought a hybrid. Tesla changed the game because it created a product that appealed to everything drivers wanted on four wheels, plus not using gas. In Consumer Reports2017 Owner Satisfaction Survey, Tesla finished number one, with 91 percent of owners saying they’d buy a Tesla vehicle if they had it to do all over again. Consumer Reports compared that level of satisfaction to a “Major League Baseball player batting .900.” As Business Insider observed about the 350,000+ people who pre-ordered the Tesla Model 3 more than a year in advance of production: “These people weren’t promising to buy a car — they were investing in a brand,” a brand built on delivering the high level of quality and performance most drivers value above fuel efficiency — but bringing along fuel efficiency, too.

Success Strategy 3: “Sacrifice” doesn’t sell

Image credit: Beautycounter

Women don’t want to give up make-up. But ingredient analyses showing how many toxic chemicals beauty products contain have thrown shoppers for a loop. What’s the choice? Risk cancer or go make-up free? Beautycounter opted for neither/nor. Instead, the company developed “innovative and high-performing products” to an “industry-leading standard of safety” that provide the same level of beauty as their conventional counterparts. BeautyCounter uses the hashtag #BetterBeauty, but it could be #HaveYour(Beauty)CakeAndEatItToo.

Success Strategy 4: Stress the tech while you redefine the benefits

Image credit: Nest

Programmable thermostats have been around for a long time, but their plain design and relatively straightforward services made them ho hum and may have stunted their sales. Nest changed all that by becoming one of the first devices to make your home “smart.” Plus, it just looked cool. In doing so, Nest also made saving energy cool. Now, as the company rolls out its “3rd-gen Nest Learning Thermostat,” it declares, “Saving energy is a beautiful thing.” Not that it saves money or is good for the planet, both of which are true. It’s just … beautiful. Oh, yeah, and “it has new rings and a big, sharp display.” Don’t forget to stress the tech.

Success Strategy 5: Sell direct

Image credit: Natura

For decades, selling more sustainable products was hindered by limited access to customers because access was restricted to brick-and-mortar stores — many of which were hard, if not impossible, for purpose-driven brands to infiltrate. Take early organic produce: Dedicated consumers often had to shop at grimy co-ops and then settle for bruised fruit and wilting vegetables that cost significantly more than conventional produce. Once Amazon proved that consumers were willing to have almost anything delivered to their homes, the light bulb went on for sustainable food businesses competing against more conventional — and entrenched — companies. Today, organic dairies are surviving by resurrecting the home delivery “milkman.” Farmers are delivering bags of fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods and meats to customers, as well. And sustainable cosmetics brands including Natura and BeautyCounter are building their empires thanks to agents who sell directly to their customers, like the Avon “ladies” of old.

Success Strategy 6: Tell an inspiring origin story

Tony’s Chocolonely is now the fastest-selling chocolate company in Holland, and it’s quickly gaining a solid foothold in the US. Why? Dutch investigative journalist Teun “Tony” van de Keuken was stunned to learn that over two million children work in slave-like conditions on cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Vowing to change the system, van de Keuken founded Tony’s Chocolonely, vowing to produce only “slave-free chocolate.” The chocolate bars are created in a wildly uneven pattern of pieces to highlight the unequal way it says profits from cocoa production are divided along every aspect of the product’s supply chain. The story, plus the quality of the chocolate, have helped the Amsterdam-based company maintain a 50 percent annual growth rate since its launch in 2005, despite paying a $175 premium (above published “fair trade” prices) for every metric ton of cocoa beans it purchases. Since 2012, Tony’s Chocolonely has grown its revenue nearly ninefold, to €44.9 million (U.S. $55.3 million) in 2017. In this social media era of revealing tell-alls and first-person narratives, explaining a new product with a compelling origin story sells.

Success Strategy 7: Turn your brand into a movement

Image credit: ChicoBag

ChicoBag is on more than a sales trajectory. It’s on a mission to “help humanity bag the single-use habit.” The company’s flagship product, the reusable shopping bag, was created to “empower people to take an active role” in stopping the use of throwaway plastic bags. But its vision doesn’t stop there: ChicoBag also wants to “empower people to take an active role” in stopping plastic pollution, while showing the world “there is a better way to do business.” To achieve these goals, Chico sells consumers what they need to get involved: an inexpensive, durable, fashionable and affordable bag they can use over and over and over again. The company has created a variety of types of bags — for travel, for lunch, for produce, even for Halloween — so consumers can use a Chico bag anytime and anywhere. Chico has also established a co-branding operation so that other businesses can take advantage of the good will Chico has created in the marketplace and appear to do right by association (never mind that the co-branding helps Chico continue to build its own brand). Arguably, ChicoBag also helped advocates in states and counties around the US persuasively argue that it was possible to survive without plastic bags — positioning itself perfectly as more and more states and counties enact plastic bag fees and other laws to reduce use of plastic bags, and more and more major retailers encourage shoppers to BYOB (bring your own bag).


Diane MacEachern is a founding member of Green Moms Carnival, a blogging network of mostly moms who reach millions of consumers with their green lifestyle tips, product reviews and shopping suggestions. MacEachern is also the founder & CEO of Big… [Read more about Diane MacEachern]


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